Parashat Korah / The Truth of Liars

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

“Korah and all his company” ‏(Numbers 16:6‏) sought to nullify the hierarchy existing between the people and its leaders. Ever since “the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up” ‏(Num. 16:32‏), their fate has never ceased to fire the imagination of biblical commentators. The Torah teaches that “notwithstanding the sons of Korah died not” ‏(Num. 26:11‏), and our sages speak of the real and spiritual descendants of the sons of Korah throughout the generations − descendants who embraced some of Korah’s anarchistic and sincere spirit, and also favored the elimination of hierarchies. The most famous of those descendants was the prophet Samuel, who opposed Saul’s coronation as Israel’s first king.

A thin thread of anti-establishment optimism emerges from the encouraging words “Notwithstanding the sons of Korah died not.” It is as if anarchists can still cherish the hope that one day they will be able to rise up, act contrary to accepted norms and realize their potential. However, the concept of the immortality of Korah’s children can also have another meaning: Indeed, in the Talmudic legend freely translated below, this verse is presented with a completely different meaning − not a message about seeds of change in the future, but rather as a tragedy.

Rabbah bar bar Hana, an amora ‏(Talmud scholar and teacher‏) who was able to weave marvelous stories, wandered the length and breadth of the Fertile Crescent to convey important traditions related to halakha ‏(Jewish law‏) and biblical commentary from the centers of sacred Jewish studies in Palestine to their counterparts in Babylon. For most of those who traveled this circuit doing such work, the vast desert was little more than a giant obstacle to be overcome. But not for this amora: In his imagination, it became the Sinai desert.

In that desert, relates Rabbah bar bar Hannah upon reaching his destination, he met a nomad who guided him among the historical sites dating back to the period of the Israelites’ wandering through the wilderness. He showed the Talmudist where metei hamidbar − literally, the dead of the desert ‏(i.e., the Israelites who left Egypt and were doomed to die because they accepted the libelous statements of the 10 spies about the Promised Land‏) − had journeyed, as well as Mount Sinai and the place where Korah and his company had been swallowed up by the earth.

“Rabbah bar bar Hana recounts: The nomad said to me, ‘Come over here and I will show you where Korah and his company were swallowed up.’ I saw two cracks in the ground and from them smoke was emitted. My guide took cotton soaked in water, stuck it on the point of a javelin and thrust it into one of the cracks. When he removed it, the cotton was scorched. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘what do you hear?’ I heard voices saying: ‘Moses is truth and his Torah is truth, but they are liars.’ He said to me, ‘Every 30 days hell returns them to this spot, like meat in a large pot, and the voices say the same words − Moses is truth and his Torah is truth − but they are liars’” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, p. 74a‏).

The nomad-guide conducts an experiment to demonstrate to Rabbah bar bar Hana just how hot hell is. The cotton soaked in water is lowered into one of the cracks, and when it is removed, it comes out scorched. For Rabbah bar bar Hana, this provokes an associative reflection: Had the scholar himself entered hell, his flesh would have been scorched like the cotton. But Korah and his company, who were swallowed up by the earth, were condemned to remain alive in hell’s heat, and to be rotated like a piece of meat turned over in a pot over the fire.

The nomad-guide then instructs Rabbah bar bar Hana to listen carefully; the amora does so and hears the voices of the persons who have been swallowed up, saying, “Moses is truth and his Torah is truth, but they are liars.” The nomad informs his interlocutor that this phrase can be heard once every 30 days, which is when they reach the spot beneath the cracks.

On the face of it, the scholar’s story seems to present Korah and his company as individuals who repent their sin. Furthermore, the severity of their punishment does not elicit any apparent surprise. However, there is a linguistic problem with the phrase ostensibly recited by the “swallowed-up” individuals: Why do they speak of themselves in third-person plural? Why do they say “but they are liars” instead of “but we are liars”? And there is another difficulty: Why do they use the word “liars” to describe themselves? After all, the Torah records that their claim is that “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them” ‏(Num. 16:3‏). This claim is serious and can be debated. It is not a lie per se; at the most, it is mistaken.

This comment by the swallowed-up individuals must be reread and the last words − vehein bada’in, “but they are liars” − must be interpreted as reflecting the view of the person who hears what they say: The people shout, “Moses is truth and his Torah is truth,” and Rabbah bar bar Hana, who cannot bear the thought that although they have repented, they are still being punished, therefore says, “but they are liars.” In essence, they do not really mean what they say; they are insincere and only making this declaration because they want to be taken out of hell.

Another difficulty relates to the nomad-guide, who tells Rabbah bar bar Hannah that every 30 days the individuals are returned to the same spot and recite the same words. In passing on this information, the guide repeats the exact words that they declare. Is he also expressing criticism of their sentiments? One must read the guide’s words with a measure of doubt so as to create a different focus for the entire story. Even when the guide says “but they are liars,” he is not repeating what Korah and company are saying. We should place a question mark after those four words. Just as the Talmudist says the people are liars, the guide in effect asks, “Is it at all possible that they are liars?”

Standing in the desert, on the edge of hell, Rabbah bar bar Hana reflects on the law as meted out in that place. He cannot believe that Korah and his group have actually abandoned their anarchistic philosophy, and have acknowledged that Moses and his Torah are indeed the truth; if these people are being punished, he reasoned, this is surely a sign that “they are liars.” He regards hell as an integral, comprehensible part of the biblical philosophy of reward and punishment. Thus, if Korah and the group are still being punished, they are still sinners.

The need to attribute logic or meaning to what goes on in hell means, in this case, that it is impossible to believe the sincerity of Korah and his company. But the guide corrects Rabbah bar bar Hana. “Each month Korah and his company repeatedly acknowledge that Moses and the Torah are truth,” he tells the scholar, “and yet you are saying they are liars? It can be safely assumed that they are telling the truth.”

The moment the guide begins to believe in the declarations regularly made by Korah and his company, the guide in effect shows Rabbah bar bar Hana that hell is a space that operates not in accordance with the amora’s code of justice, but rather another system − a primordial, total and cruel one.

The human need to decipher and interpret the world as a system that operates on the basis of the principles of justice prevents Rabbah bar bar Hana from hearing the voices of individuals entrapped in a whirlpool of injustice. The Talmudist must accustom himself to believing one of two things: Either Korah and his company, who were swallowed up by the earth, continue to adhere to their sincere anarchistic view and are thus subjected to eternal punishment − or else they have repented and are spared that punishment. But Rabbah bar bar Hana is also presented with a rather inscrutable possibility related to hell: that the fact that “sons of Korah died not” is actually their punishment.

Rabbah bar bar Hana stands in the middle of the desert, on the edge of hell, and learns that there are cases where repentance is impossible and where mistakes cannot be mended. He stands face to face with God’s absolute power, which, while lacking the unusual quality of Korah’s own brand of anarchism, is nonetheless just as anti-establishment in the human meaning of the term.

"The Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram," by Sandro Botticelli (1482).